(NOTE: This is a pre-game analysis of Final Fantasy XIII. Expect the review once the game is played to completion)
Just when I thought the games industry couldn't get more bizarre (what with the Infinity Ward/Activision scandals, Playstation 3 lockups, and Pokemon accessories), it goes and does something like this.
I've been a fan of Final Fantasy for over a decade now, having been introduced to the series proper with Final Fantasy VII. I've since played the entire series, and while a few of the installments didn't quite click with me (2, 4, and 10), the highlights (6, 7, 9, and 12, for the record) more than make up for them, and easily set the Final Fantasy franchise amongst my favorites in gaming. There's a sense of adventure, of mystique, and of discovery that add up to pure Japanese-fueled gaming goodness. The name 'Final Fantasy' has some sort of DNA alteration effect on my being, making me instantly take notice. Having loved Final Fantasy XII when it was released in 2006, I couldn't wait to see what was next in store for the franchise.
This brings us to Final Fantasy XIII.
Let's get one thing clear: My opinion is that RPGs are created to escape to a fictional place which rewards a sense of progression and discovery, using experience points and character alteration to give the player a sense of power, and the perception of using that power to manipulate and alter the outcomes of the fictional world they're inhabiting. Whether it be a more Western-style approach (Mass Effect, Fallout, Elder Scrolls), or the Eastern-style (Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, Shin Megami), there are certain things that 'make' an RPG for me. Exploration, development, and narrative. Note, exploration comes first.
Final Fantasy XIII has no overworld, no towns, no shops, and no sidequests (until later in the game). Upon hearing this news, I became furious. 'What the hell is this crap?! I need to explore, why else would you make a fucking fictional world if you aren't allowing people to explore it?' A lack of overworld wasn't a big deal, as many of my favorite RPGs don't have an 'overworld' to speak of (Legend of Dragoon, Final Fantasy Tactics, Persona 3). Now, as for the lack of towns? This is where things get a little fishy. I always feel fulfillment in talking with the civilians and 'town gossipers' in my games, as it helps me sink into the fiction: I'm more likely to believe the world I'm in, if I hear bullshit gossip. I mean, how can you NOT be enthralled by how Jimbo the one-legged savant plays the fabled piano of Xanthor on a deserted island! Shit yeah, man, let's go find that island!
Shops and sidequests are still intact, only a drastic change from what myself, and many JRPG fans, are used to. Apparently save points are now shops, and sidequests only unlock VERY lategame, where it could have the 'too little, too late' stigma souring it. Couple this with the insane sci-fi setting, and the constant babbling about nonsense in the official trailers, I was losing hope, and losing it fast. Hell, I got to the point of mocking the game, as this fabled episode of Nitrobeard goes to prove.
As 2009 rolled to a close and 2010 started, my gaming tastes were changing. I put away my PS2 and Wii, and focused on my PS3, competitive online games (whether they be FPS titles like Modern Warfare, or RTS titles like Dawn of War 2), and MMO titles like Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft. While I still appreciated the longevity of Japanese RPGs, the ones I became interested in were few and far between. Final Fantasy XIII was a scoffed-at entity, something I simply blew off, as I had already made up my mind about it: I didn't like it. I didn't like the way it did business, I didn't like its unfaithful nature to longtime fans, and I sure as hell didn't like the way they were 'cashing in' on FF staples in order to sedate whining fanboys like myself. I didn't fret over it anymore, because I simply didn't care. I had other, better games to worry about now.
Let's fast-forward to this past week, then. As I was casually browsing metacritic, I couldn't help but notice that a majority of reviews for FFXIII were put online. Being the curious guy that I am, I clicked on it. I didn't know what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn't this:
Wha.....what?! If you would've told me ten years ago that any 'officially numbered' Final Fantasy wouldn't just get low review scores, but get lambasted by the gaming press, I would've called you a knuckleheaded fuddy-duddy in so many words. I read every single review, and the amount of scathing rage for this game is through the roof. Now, I didn't have the 'HA! I TOLD YOU IT WOULD SUCK' reaction you're probably expecting, and that confused me. I mean, I knew they were taking the game in a bad direction, right? I should rejoice that my preconceived notion was rewarded with similar thoughts by the gaming press, but something was triggered in my head. As my tastes have changed, so has my analysis on the hobby: Were these reviews simply negative because it's not the same-old-song-and-dance we're used to from JRPGs, or are these reviews completely honest, and FFXIII has entirely missed the mark it was aiming for?
I then read one review, one that changed my entire opinion about the situation. Big props to GamesRadar for posting the most even-headed review I've read for a game in quite some time, and it changed my perspective entirely.
They call out the attention to pacing, the fact that the streamlined nature of the game works in favor of it, and that this is a true breath of fresh air for a long-stagnant genre. 'I guess I never looked at it like that', I say to myself. Then I remember the hubub given to The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker for changing the main structures of the game (whether they be graphics, or using a boat as your main source of exploring the world), and that game was fantastic. Command and Conquer 4 is getting rid of the entirety of the oldschool formula for multiplayer, focusing on 'Offense, Defense, and Support' class selection, and I'm still crazy-excited for that to release. The games industry is in a state of change, a true paradigm shift, and Final Fantasy is not immune to it. In many respects, Final Fantasy has always been the frontrunner of new ideas and gameplay executions in the JRPG ring, and this could be setting a precedent for other titles to follow.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense: This may be the answer I was looking for all along. I'm almost 25 now, and my life has changed greatly since I was 15. I have adult responsibilities, fulfilling relationships to embrace, a career to excel at, and bills to pay. I need a game like Final Fantasy XIII, one that rewards limited playtime, and streamlines the process of the JRPG to bite-sized bits. If we take a look at my backlog, it's FILLED with JRPGs I haven't even started, and there's no way in hell I'll ever find time to finish. The last Final Fantasy I played to completion was Final Fantasy X, and that was nearly nine years ago. It was time for a change, not necessarily for the genre, but for me.
To say I'm excited to start Final Fantasy XIII is an understatement. I'm going in with no preconceived notions: I'm not tied to any one 'idea' of what the game 'should' be, and as I result, I'm hoping to get the most from it. I've heard mixed reviews from friends about the game, but from the sounds of it, I'll really enjoy the experience. Sure, there may not be exploration in the 'giant version of yourself running around big fields with tiny cities poking out' sense of the term, but it looks as if the exploration is in the battle mechanics, and the same thrill of 'finding that hidden cave nobody knew about' will be relived as 'finding that perfect mix of job classes to destroy this ultimate boss'. The fun of running around towns may be lost, and the thrill of doing countless sidequests may not be intact, but it seems as if it'll be replaced with the majestic scenery, and interaction of my party members as the game carefully keeps me on track. The game is 'on rails', for lack of a better term, but that seems to be the norm nowadays, doesn't it?
I think the one thing that took me by surprise in this whole situation, though, is how much I learned from it. I haven't even started playing the game yet, and I've already gone from being an absolute hater a year ago, to someone who is going to be giddy while his copy loads for the first time. Not only have I changed my views on what makes a 'fun' or 'good' game worthy of my time, it looks like Final Fantasy is doing the same. It's changing its focus, and trying to find out where it fits in this crazy, ever-changing industry. I've grown up with Final Fantasy, and in many respects, it looks like Final Fantasy is growing up with me, too.
If that's not a true "paradigm shift", I don't know what is.